California State University, Long Beach

Responses to Subsidence and the Tidelands Controversy


In the late 1930s, oil was discovered under Long Beach harbor. Its production helped Long Beach recover from the Depression and provided revenue to support expansion and modernization of the harbor as well as enriching individuals who owned land in the area. As a result when land near the oil field began to sink, those who were profiting from pumping the oil out from under the land resisted any suggestion that there could be a link between oil production and subsidence. They hired experts to defend their position. As the subsidence continued, those whose property was damaged by the sinking, but who were not benefiting from the oil production, hired experts to determine what was really causing the sinking. While the controversy continued, the land kept sinking. It sunk like a big bowl and the bottom of the bowl was more than 25 feet below its previous elevation. Some warned that if the sinking continued, the ocean might inundate the city. The Navy Shipyard was near the bottom of the bowl and the Navy didn't own the mineral rights of the Shipyard so they were suffering damage but receiving no benefit so in 1958 the Navy sued all of the oil operators. Although the suit was never litigated or settled, it helped to convince many people that a proposed solution, pumping water into the fault blocks where the oil had been taken out, should be implemented. And that solution stopped the sinking. The production of oil from under the harbor led geologists to explore the area under the tidelands and submerged lands off Long Beach and oil was discovered to be there as well. This discovery led to a struggle between the city, to whom the state had granted the tidelands in 1911, and the state and federal governments over control of the oil revenue. Eventually the state and city were forced to divide the money. Interviews with four individuals provide different perspectives on the issues of subsidence and ownership of the tidelands. They were conducted as part of a project to study the impact of the discovery of oil on the development of Long Beach. Robert Irvin lobbied for the Harbor Department to encourage legislators to support its ownership of the tidelands and submerged lands. Charles Vickers worked for the Harbor Department, surveyed lands under which oil was discovered and helped to manage the harbor's growth using the oil revenue. Irvin worked with Darrell Neighbors on the "Hard Core" committee that fought to stop subsidence. And Jan Law conceived and conducted the experiments to demonstrate that subsidence was caused by oil production. All of them were active, in one way or another, in the campaign to win public support for their activities.

Recent Submissions

  • Irvin, Robert (11/11/1902 - 2/1/1992); Briegel, Kaye, interviewer (2021-01-13)
    INTERVIEW DESCRIPTION - Irvin was interviewed in his Orange County townhouse where he lived with his wife. He was an attorney and an articulate spokesman for his conservative view of law and politics. The interview was ...
  • Law, Jan (1/25/1908 - 1/27/1994); Briegel, Kaye, interviewer (2021-01-13)
    INTERVIEW DESCRIPTION - This fourth interview was conducted in Law's office. When the interview was completed, Briegel collected the materials Law discussed and took them back to CSULB library. 12/1/1983
  • Law, Jan (1/25/1908 - 1/27/1994); Briegel, Kaye, interviewer (2021-01-13)
    INTERVIEW DESCRIPTION - Law's third interview was conducted following a tour of "Bixby A Lease." It is in a wetland that, other than the oil production activity, is undeveloped and serves as a wildlife refuge. Law drove ...
  • Law, Jan (1/25/1908 - 1/27/1994); Briegel, Kaye, interviewer (2021-01-07)
    INTERVIEW DESCRIPTION - Law's second interview was conducted in his office on the "Bixby A Lease," an active oil producing area, in Long Beach. Sometimes the interview was interrupted by phone calls and maintenance activities ...
  • Law, Jan (1/25/1908 - 1/27/1994); Briegel, Kaye, interviewer (2021-01-07)
    INTERVIEW DESCRIPTION - Law's first interview was set up by Darrell Neighbors and conducted in Law's office which was in a building located on the "Bixby A Lease," an active oil producing area, in Long Beach. John Ahouse, ...